Sunday, April 10, 2005


Boy, would I not like to be a tabloid journalist in Berlin right now; I'd be looking at a plate from which the meat and potatoes had been removed. (Everyone knows Germans don't eat vegetables).

Somehow, I missed the news that Harald Juhnke had died. For the scandal sheets, this is equivalent to Michael Jackson, P Diddy, and Britney Spears all perishing in a nightclub fire. One thing you could always count on: when the news slowed down, Juhnke would be in the headlines.

Not being German, and not being of a certain age, of course, I completely missed Juhnke's career. From what I've been able to make out, he was an entertainer who somehow survived the war, and built a postwar career as sort of Germany's answer to Frank Sinatra. Like Sinatra, he was a copious drinker, and like Sinatra, he recorded "New York, New York," only with new lyrics so that it came out "Berlin, Berlin." I've never had the pleasure of reading the words Juhnke pasted on to the song, but I'd like to give them a check for accuracy.

It was Juhnke's drinking that made the headlines, though. He was one of those people who'd drink in binges, who'd get blind drunk and keep on going for days. Unfortunately, unlike some people, he was a public figure, and he'd wind up pitching face-first into his dinner or collapsing in a hotel lobby somewhere and it'd make the news. One particularly horrible incident I remember was a series of photos with a screaming headline, "JUHNKE STAGGERS DOWN AN ALLEY." You could really see the pain and confusion on the poor guy's face; clearly he had no idea where he was, or what the flashing lights were all about as the vampires fed off of his disgrace. Vampires? That's being nice. I remember another front-page story which announed "We bought Harald Juhnke drinks to see what he'd do." Well, he did what you'd figure he'd do.

So as I spent my first few years in Berlin trying to figure out who this drunk was, I missed the fact that, when he was relatively sober, he was actually a star who commanded big fees, appeared on television, and all the rest. This was as much because German celebrity culture mainly focuses on people who are only celebrities in Germany as because German television, where I'd probably have caught his act, is so bad it dares you to watch it most of the time.

But because Juhnke showed up in the news so often, he was one of the few German celebrities whose name became part of the background noise here, and it didn't take long to figure out the cat-and-mouse game with the press, as well as the fact that he was famous for another reason. Then, he shocked everyone: he was going to retire. Apparently he'd made an ill-fated attempt to crack Hollywood (like they needed a middle-aged German alcoholic with no acting training) and then realized that maybe a dignified retreat from the scene was the wiser thing to do. He set a date for his farewell concert, and it sold out in mintues.

It was the farewell concert that brought to my attention that there was actually something to the man. As an opening act, he'd chosen Jocelyn B. Smith. She, too, is a local fixture, a black American singer who's decided that Berlin would be the place she'd make it in show-biz. Talented, but directionless, not averse to playing up the sort of weird exoticism Germany feels towards black people, an exoticism that's not quite racism and not quite not, she's always playing around, never quite breaking through. But Juhnke's gesture was moving; it was a sort of passing of the baton to the younger generation, giving her a chance to be seen by the faithful fans who'd stood by him all these years.

But when she took the stage, something horrible happened. Some of the audience started to boo, and others started yelling "Get the nigger off!" Juhnke stormed on stage and announced that he was not going to perform to an audience that behaved like that, that he'd chosen this singer himself, and that he was shocked and mortified that his fans would perform like this. It worked: the boos died away, and he got a round of applause, and Jocelyn went on with the show.

And, unlike a number of rock bands I could mention, Juhnke stood by his decision to retire. Not long afterwards, he entered a rehab facility, and it was announced that he wasn't in very good shape. Then he moved to a care facility, and there was much publicity as the press got all hypocritically concerned. And then, a few days ago, he died.

He managed to exit at about the same moment as the Pope did, which is probably why I didn't notice. The press, for their part, had tried to find other scandalous people to write about, but it just wasn't the same once Harald was off the set, and now he was gone for good. Pretty soon it'll be July, and we'll be moving into the Sommerloch, the "summer hole" where nothing happens. This was usually the time when we'd see the Harald headlines, but for the past few years, they haven't been there. And now they won't be, ever again.

I guess the moral of this is that everyone likes a scapegoat for their own failings, and that more than one drunk was moved to point at him and think "See, I'm not so bad." I have no idea what gifts this man may have had, but I do thank him for alerting me to the nature of celebrity journalism in this country. And I still do want to see those lyrics to "Berlin, Berlin."

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